John pulls up outside the house of mystery and taps his fingers nervously on his steering wheel. The car is new. (Second-hand, but new.) This whole life is new. He takes the keys out of the ignition and stuffs them into his pocket. He adjusts his earring (the "gay" ear, of course) in the rear view mirror before turning to Astra.
“This is your new home.”
She examines it carefully from where she sat, not moving a muscle. She reminded John, in that moment, of a tiny mouse; maybe she was afraid she’d get beaten.
John steps out of the car and goes around to the other side to open the door for her. This has been a long time coming for him. First, getting himself mentally stable enough to look after a child; second, the paperwork and welfare checks; third, the deals and favours with low-class demons working in the foster care system to push his application to take Astra a little bit further along.
Now he had her and he had absolutely no idea what to do.
“Come on, luv,” he says. His voice is soft, much like his expression.
It’s his gentleness that persuades Astra to get out of the car and follow him inside.
“Your room is this way,” John explains, leading her into a living room and then down a hallway and to the right.
The house is old and the floorboards creak under her feet. Astra hates it. That sound at her old home - if it could be called that - meant people were coming to use her. But John was nice as far as she could tell, so she lets her hands fall from fists to by her side.
The room was cosy and John had slaved away over ikea furniture for almost six hours to make sure she had a comfortable bed, desk, shelves, and bedside table. On her bed were colourful pillows and two journals.
John sits down beside them and pats the bed with his hand, “You can sit, if you like.”
Men had done this to Astra before, but they had always commanded her - never asked. She sits and runs her fingers over the embossed leather covers of the journals; she has never seen anything so expensive-looking save for her father's ceremonial robes in her life.
“My psychiatrist suggested this and I think it’s a good idea, too. You got one journal there that’s all yours. I ain’t reading it, touching it, or ever gonna look through it. You can write whatever you want in it. The other one is for things that you want me to know, but that you can’t find the words for yet.”
John takes her hesitant silence as encouragement to keep explaining, “Sometimes s’hard to talk about things. I know I get teary and shaky like a bloody mess about shi-, uh, stuff. This way you can skip all that and be comfortable, but still get it off your chest.”
Astra chews her bottom lip, scraping dead skin off of it with her teeth. It tastes of the chapstick the disinterested social workers had given her.
“I... don’t—“ she cuts herself off. She had spoken without permission. It feels so natural around John, but shes sure he'll get mad.
John frowns, but not an angry frown; curious. “You don’t like it?”
Astra shakes her head, “I don’t know how to do those things.”
John’s face falls, not in disappointment, but a sad rage at her father, “You’ve never... well, I’m sure we can find you somethin’. They gotta have books to practice with.”
The fact that John seemed just as nervous as Astra herself, calmed her a little. It was comforting to know she wasn’t the only one scared of new things.
“I bought a couple sets of clothes, but I thought soon we can go shopping and get you some you really want.” John opens the closet and pulls out a pair of pyjamas. They were a soft pink and a size too big.
Astra takes them gratefully. They're softer than they appear and she runs her hand over the material in delight, a gentle smile on her face. John knew by the smile he had done something right.
Without thinking, John pushes his sleeves up to reach the top shelf of the closet and the plush sloth that he’d bought for her. The skin on his forearms was relatively free of tattoos, but instead had markings that John would much rather keep hidden. Raised, pale, self-harm scars and old cigarette burns littered the skin like a patchwork quilt. Some were as new as six months ago and were still pink and obvious. He was so used to being on his own, it’s only when he sees Astra staring at them that he pushes his sleeves back down.
“My apologies, luv, didn’t mean to scare you,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.
She reaches her hands out to the plush sloth and cuddles it close to her chest. She dares not question him, despite the intense curiosity burning in her stomach. John lets out a sigh of relief that he hadn’t completely freaked her out.
“Are you hungry? Thirsty?”
Astra shakes her head. The relatively kind people at the child welfare place had taken good care of her in the months after John had rescued her, but they had been unable to find a home for her until now.
John purses his lips in thought, “If you’d like, I’ll leave you alone to settle in.”
Astra nods eagerly; she much preferred being alone.
He reaches out slowly so he didn’t frighten her and pats her shoulder with care and affection before leaving.
Astra watches him go and then sits on her bed. She smiles to herself and bounces on it. She had never had a bed before. Or anything of her own. She had lived in a cage; seldom bathed and fed scraps. When she was bathed, it meant that her father’s friends would be coming and she was made to perform sexual tasks on them. Her father told her that she had the power to exorcise the devil from those men and help cure their lust for women. Then, as his madness grew even deeper, he sometimes used her for satanic rituals. Astra squeezes her eyes shut and banishes the thoughts, instead choosing to focus on her room. It had pale blue walls, and shelves ready to be filled with things of her own. She grins at the thought of having her own personal belongings.
She creeps with silent, practiced footsteps in to the room a little further down the hall from hers. It must be John’s, she gathers, from the bass guitar hung on the wall and posters of old rock bands. She traces her fingers warily over a symbol carved into the wall. She recognised the funny lines from one of her father’s friend’s clothing, but John had drawn a big cross through it. She made a note to ask him about it later. Astra had survived by going through her father’s things without permission and she had not been taught that doing so was wrong. She rustles as quietly as she can through the bedside drawer and pulls out a bundle of photographs and paper held together by a rubber band. She perches herself on the edge of John’s bed, curiosity blinding her to John hovering in the doorway.
“Astra?” he calls, approaching from behind slowly.
She flinches and drops the photo which spill on the floor like a wave of memories. She clutches her head, her arms coming across her face protectively as a tiny yelp escapes her mouth. She was sure she would get beaten for this. Why else would John call out to her? He was going to trick her into confessing that she had wandered out of her room. The words nasty, filthy, conniving brat run through her mind.
John sits beside her on the bed which bows under his weight with a creak.
“It’s okay,” he says as he begins to pick up the dropped pictures. He is more tender with the older ones, Astra notes. She follows suit, watching him with wide, curious eyes as she hands him the pictures she picked up.
He addresses the question on her lips, “These are of me family. I like to keep them close.”
John begins to lay the pictures out on the bed so she could see. First, an old photograph of a man, a woman, and a girl.
“Tha’s me Mam there. An’ me sister,” he points to them and lays out a few more photos. The young girl looked about five or six when the woman stopped appearing in the photos.
“What happened to her?” Astra asks with a tiny, timid voice.
John takes in a sharp breath and lays out another photograph. This time of a baby.
Astra giggles to herself. Confidence swirls in her stomach and up her throat, pushing the words out, “Is that you?”
“Yeah. My sister took it with me Dad’s camera. It’s a little bit blurry.”
Astra didn’t quite understand how the baby picture answered her question, but she doesn’t push him to say any more about it.
“This is my sister and her family. Their daughter, Gemma, is about your age now.”
Astra looks at the photograph and smiles at the baby wrapped in a pink blanket; the mother was smiling down at her. Silently, Astra longs for photographs of her own mother looking at her like that. She picks up a small envelope which is brown with age, “What's this?"
John clears his throat, taking it from her quickly without snatching it, "S'a letter. From me Mam. She must'a had a hunch she wasn't gonna be around for me, so she wrote me this."
Like a distraction sent from heaven itself, a bird call sounds through the room from the window. Astra gasps and rushes to the window, squinting up into the sunlight and the trees in an attempt to see what was making such a beautiful sound.
"S'just a... wait- ain't you never seen a bird before?" John asks. No, he concludes, she wouldn't have: Astra had spent all her days locked in a basement, you silly git.
"M-may I go outside and see it?"
"Luv, you can do much more than that. C'mon, I'll get my coat," he says, his arm around her shoulder and a maniacal grin crossing his features.